Identify the Right Threshold

hurdleIt’s a paradox, the easy thing to do is to do more work. The hard thing to do is to decide where to place the good enough threshold, and to work enough to meet, but not exceed that threshold.

I had a boss once who, when evaluating a project would either describe the state as “above threshold” or “below threshold”. It was an interesting choice of words, and really described his point of view on things… It’s a natural thing, when working on a project, to want to do your best, to make sure no one could criticize the project output from any dimension. The problem is that to get a project to this point of completeness can be a huge waste of effort. Upon project delivery, most of that extra effort does not matter, and in retrospect, delivered zero value.

In retrospect, that threshold is defined by the things that mattered and those that didn’t, and this is where my boss could add so much value. With his experience in hundreds of executive proposals, and with his working knowledge of the current decision makers, he could map out the right thresholds for our projects. Because of our manager’s ability to set the right threshold, my group was able to be tremendously efficient, and crank out high-value work at a very high rate. Other managers who would conservatively default to the “make it the best” threshold could not match our efficiencies.

This boss was an expert at recognizing the Minimum Viable Project, and avoiding scope creep. For some reason the minimum viable concept doesn’t show up in training materials about building strategy documents or decision packages. In my career as a product strategy guy, I’ve had two managers who were good at this, and countless who were not. These two managers are amazing to work with.

One of the things I noticed first when interacting with them was their very strong grasp of philosophy… of the “why” we were working on the project. There was a point. And with this point in mind, and in the context of that landscape to get to that point, there was a clear threshold of work to get to the point. What the other managers were missing was the point, they seemed to be looking at the project itself as the goal, in contrast to focusing on the goal of the project.

It’s harder work to figure out the goal of the project. It is easy to follow a recipe for project completion. Focusing on the project as the metric creates a false sense of progress… It’s like measuring a software project’s progress by lines of code as opposed to user stories completed. The hard work is extracting the user stories, or the “what are we trying to get done here”.

Understanding this perspective in a marketing or operational job has tremendous implications on what you can do with your life. In the software world there’s the concept that some developers deliver 10x or 100x the productivity of others. I posit the same is true with marketing or other knowledge working jobs. We just don’t do a very good job of measuring them, or understanding why this is.

I’ve been through 3-4 product management courses or seminars. A lot of these focus on effective communication tools, planning tools, meeting management, soft skills for negotiation. All very good things to be better at. But none of them have been very strong in the areas of how do you decide what not to do, what litmus test can you use to choose what to work on.

In software we can go to the business owner and ask them for the user story and it’s priority. In product management, it’s very vague… Things like stage gate processes provide a framework to help guide these decisions, and prioritize work. But they always end up becoming wrote actions followed by automatons, and their purpose becomes polluted with something else… And we all lose the philosophy about what we are trying to do.

So don’t take the easy path, don’t do it all. Just do the things that matter. Stop wasting your time. Take the time you save and do something awesome.

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